Try as they might, U2 do not take to postmodern irony easily. Take the band’s Feb. 12 press conference to announce their upcoming PopMart world tour. In keeping with the shows’ stage design — a parody of crass, consumer-culture totems like supermarkets and McDonald’s — the band met the media at a Kmart in Manhattan. Get it? Sitting on a makeshift stage in the lingerie department, Bono and the boys did their best to downscale themselves. They joked with reporters and cannily dodged questions on CD censorship and money. Bono even plopped himself onto one writer’s lap — mine, as it turned out.
In the wake of their 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, this scenario wasn’t altogether surprising. Long before their arena-rock peers, U2 smartly sensed that rock and pop culture were mutating into an amorphous, media-saturated blob. Despite the cheeky presentation at Kmart, however, the old, ardent U2 kept rearing its close-cropped head. By the end of the press conference, Bono was comparing techno bands like Prodigy to blues myth Robert Johnson and waxing on about conquering the world. Even when they expressed a passion for junk culture, it came across as a bit studied. ”We believe in trash, we believe in kitsch,” said guitarist the Edge, ”and that’s what we are up to at the moment.” With his earnest delivery, he sounded less like a hedonistic rock star than a Jesuit confessing to a crush on Jenny McCarthy.
The PopMart tour is, of course, designed to support the new U2 album, Pop. The music-industry rumor mill has been abuzz with talk that the band was immersing itself in the new electronica scene. And with its bustling-traffic arrangement, the album’s first single, ”Discotheque,” released in February, suggested that U2 were heading to a rave near you.
Judging by Pop, don’t believe the hype. Despite its glittery launch, the album is neither trashy nor kitschy, nor is it junky-fun dance music. It incorporates bits of the new technology — a high-pitched siren squeal here, a sound-collage splatter there — but it is still very much a U2 album. The band’s grab-at-the-clouds grandeur is heard in anthems like ”Staring at the Sun,” while its moody side shines in several sultry, atmospheric crawlers. (”If You Wear That Velvet Dress” simmers with a sexiness rarely heard in their music.) Only ”MoFo,” with its throbbing computer pulse, recalls the work of techno outfits like the Chemical Brothers. U2’s clattering, whirring Zooropa (1993), the Blade Runner of mainstream rock, felt more 21st century than Pop.
That U2 haven’t completely given themselves over to the new pop is disappointing but not unexpected. With its rigid rhythms and splice-and-dice pastiche, electronica is about machinery and distance, not charisma and upfront emotions. U2 could never be so detached; at the end of ”Miami,” for instance, the Edge can’t resist cranking up the guitars, and Bono wails as if he’s reaching for the upper decks of the stadiums the band will be playing on tour for the next year. U2 are still believers — in rock, and salvation through it.
Do they, however, believe in that other source of salvation? In ”MoFo,” his voice contorted by studio murk, Bono tells us he’s ”lookin’ for to fill that God-shaped hole.” Not since the last DC Talk record has a pop band name-dropped the holy deity as much as U2 do on Pop. The songs are peppered with spiritual references — to God, heaven, and ”baby Jesus under the trash.”
Longtime Christians, U2 have occasionally used their music to touch on redemption. But this time, the God-fearing element sucks some of the snap and crackle out of Pop. Electronica auteurs like Moby, himself a devout Christian, construct rapturous electronic symphonies that find God in the (artificial) details. U2 plug in and find nothing. Everywhere Bono looks, God’s place has been taken by TV and shallow celebrities. He’s right, of course, yet this is hardly an epiphany. Bono may be a moralist, but as a songwriter, he can do better than lyrics like, ”Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it’s hard to get in the door” (from the delicate ”If God Will Send His Angels”). In ”Wake Up Dead Man,” Bono implores the son of God to return and save us all, while admitting that may no longer be possible: ”I know you’re looking out for us/But maybe your hands aren’t free.”
Spiritual crisis may be the album’s central theme, but after a while it wears on the music. Rabble-rousers like ”Last Night on Earth,” about a free-living woman who’s ”not waiting for a saviour to come,” don’t soar as they once did. Even Pop‘s pacing is off; songs with similar rhythms are inexplicably grouped together. And the record’s intended centerpieces, ”Miami” and ”The Playboy Mansion,” share a flaw. Each is musically inventive: the former a space-age cocktail samba, the latter languid white-boy funk. But their use of, respectively, Florida sleaze and Hugh Hefner’s love pad as metaphors for American decay is as old as, well, Hugh Hefner.
Still, Pop can be divine. The stark, ennui-soaked ”Wake Up Dead Man,” the shimmery electronic soul of ”Do You Feel Loved,” the groping, snaky ”Please” — each demonstrates how U2 can sonically reinvent themselves and summon the old uplift. Yet Pop leaves you with an uneasy feeling, as if U2 haven’t lost faith in rock but in faith itself. They may be draping themselves in irony, but they still take music, and life, too seriously to surrender to camp entirely. On Pop, U2 sound like the last of the true believers, and they know it’ll take more than dollops of trash and kitsch to save them.